Since I Last Saw You

 

Since I Last Saw You

The story of one woman’s road trip from tragedy to gratitude.

Since I Last Saw You, is the first novel by Seattle author, Alice Ann Kuder, Oct. 2013.

Synopsis: When tragedy takes Ali Berg’s husband and young daughter from her, stealing everything she once took for granted, Ali struggles to make sense of the loss, and her anger—and to find meaning in her own life again.

Her search for answers takes her on a ten-month, cross-country road trip to reconnect with relatives, friends and mentors.  She personally delivers a hand-written letter to each one, reminiscing and thanking them for the role they played in shaping her life.

This modern day saga is set against a Pacific Northwest backdrop. Seattle author Alice Ann Kuder takes you behind the scenes at Skagit Speedway, Skydive Snohomish, the Snow Train to Bavarian-themed Leavenworth, and dozens of other Northwest locations. Kuder puts you in the passenger seat when Ali leaves the comfort of her home-sweet-home in Issaquah for an adventurous, cross-country journey, visiting destinations as diverse as Kalispell, MT, Xenia, OH, and Atlanta, GA.

Since I Last Saw You is a heartwarming tale with an inspirational message. The story’s underlying theme of being grateful for all life brings—including its trials and tragedies—is brought home by narratives of traditional and non-traditional Thanksgiving celebrations. With its engaging characters, honest emotion and rich details, reading Since I Last Saw You promises to become a Thanksgiving tradition of its own.

Seattle songwriter, Shari Kruse, contributes four original songs for Since I Last Saw You. Lyrics are included in the novel. You can download the songs for free at http://soundcloud.com/aakuder.

Since I Last Saw You is available for purchase/download as an e-book in various digital formats for reading on iPad, Nook, Kindle, and tablet readers, at the following websites: MyBookOrders.com, Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com.

It is also available in paperback: www.CreateSpace.com/4529955 as well as on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

Following are the Prologue and first four chapters of Since I Last Saw You.

Since I Last Saw You

A novel by Alice Ann Kuder

 Prologue

November 21, 2012

Ali sat looking out the window at the driving rain, one hand propping up her chin and the other absentmindedly stroking the cracked leather upholstery of the well-worn couch. She loved this little hideaway where she could be alone without being lonely.

She and Isaac had stumbled upon the cabin while hiking the backwoods of Mount Baker in the North Cascades. How many years ago was that? Ten? Fifteen? No, it must have been fourteen years ago, she thought, because it was the year we got engaged. It was about this time of year—late November—but the weather then was dry and crisp. The trees were dropping the last of their leaves, carpeting the ground with a mosaic of gold and red and orange. It was a magical autumn.

Today, however, Mother Nature was showing her more dramatic side. The wind and rain had already been pummeling the area for hours and the weather forecast was for more of the same throughout the night, possibly all weekend.

If Ali were less familiar with this place, she might have been more concerned about being alone on a mountaintop during such a violent storm. But she had arrived a few hours earlier in her ancient-yet-dependable Jeep Cherokee, fully intending to stay put for several days. Despite her family’s protestations, this is where she wanted to spend her first Thanksgiving since the death of her husband and daughter ten months earlier.

“And it’s going to be a day. There is really no way to say ‘no’ to the morning.”

 ~ Dan Fogelberg

Chapter 1

February 13, 2012

Ali was slow to wake this morning. The clock claimed it was 7:13 a.m., but the room was still dark. Why, she wondered, were the shades drawn? She always left them open when she went to bed so she would wake with the morning sun. Isaac had long ago acquiesced to her preference for morning light, even though he preferred to delay his own waking as long as possible.

Isaac. Zoe. For those first few merciful moments after waking, she had forgotten that Isaac and Zoe were gone. Forgotten that her life was irrevocably changed. Forgotten that the future she and Isaac had so carefully planned was now an unattainable wish. How, she wondered, could we both have taken for granted how fragile life is? A wave of physical and emotional pain enveloped her, sending her back under the down comforter, where she gratefully fell back to sleep.

An hour later, as she slowly reawakened to her new reality, it seemed to Ali as if every emotion she had ever felt and every experience she had ever had, had become like colored shards of memory forming a kaleidoscope in her brain. The pieces, though vivid in her mind, collided and changed so rapidly that she wasn’t able to make sense of the patterns they formed. She felt dizzy, off-balance, and nauseous.

Reluctantly, Ali sat up, pulled back the covers and set her feet on the floor. Looking across the room, she saw her reflection in the vanity mirror. The beguiling, Cheshire grin that was Ali’s hallmark, was nowhere to be found, but her dark, thick mane brushed her shoulders as usual. She was glad to see that her bangs camouflaged the creases that seemed to have appeared on her forehead overnight. I guess this is what a forty-two year old widow looks like, she thought to herself. Then she burrowed back down under her comforter, praying that it would live up to its name.

She wondered again about who had drawn the bedroom curtains. Hearing the familiar rattle of teacups coming from her kitchen, Ali knew she wasn’t alone. Several friends and relatives had offered to stay and keep her company in this home she no longer shared with anyone, but who had actually spent the night? Ali tried to remember the previous evening, but she couldn’t think clearly.

A moment later, she heard a light knock on the bedroom door. “Come in,” she responded, more out of habit than any real desire to see anyone.

“I didn’t wake you, did I? I thought I heard you stirring.” Of course it was Gwen who spent the night. How could Ali not have guessed that?

“Would you like some coffee or something to eat?”

Ali’s stomach convulsed at the thought of eating, but she was also conscious of feeling weakened by a lack food. Eating had not been a priority, or even a desire, since the accident three days earlier.

Had it really been just three days? Hadn’t Isaac and Zoe already been gone for a lifetime?

“Thanks, Gwen, but I don’t want anything just now. I’ll eat something after I shower and get dressed.” If I shower and get dressed, she thought to herself.

Gwen entered the room, sat on the edge of the bed, and took Ali’s hand in her own. “How are you feeling this morning? I know that’s kind of a lame question, but I don’t know what else to say. I guess that’s pretty ironic since I write greeting cards for a living.”

Ali didn’t answer right away. She was grateful that Gwen was the kind of friend who could tolerate silence, because answers to even the simplest of questions didn’t come quickly or easily now.

How are you feeling? How many times had she already been asked that question since the accident, by well-meaning friends and family, not to mention medical personnel and police officers? Gwen was right to ask it, Ali thought. It is the requisite question at times like this, and although probably less perfunctory than when asked during the course of an ordinary day, she always felt unable to come up with an accurately descriptive answer. And today was no exception.

“I’m fine. I’m okay.” Those answers weren’t exactly lies, but they weren’t exactly the truth either—at least, not the whole truth. It seemed strange to Ali that it should take so much effort to answer a simple question, especially when the answer didn’t really matter. I am how I am, she thought.

“I feel . . .” she began slowly, “I feel as if I am drifting through time and space, like the pictures you see of astronauts floating around their spaceships in zero gravity.”

It’s true, she thought to herself, the law of gravity no longer applies to me. Isaac and Zoe kept me grounded. Without them, I expect that I may just float away.

“Is that a good feeling or a bad feeling?” Gwen asked.

“I’m not sure,” Ali confessed. “More good than bad, I guess. It’s like the out-of-body experiences people describe when they die on the operating table. Like I’m watching myself, but I can’t really feel anything.”

Ali fell silent again for a minute, before continuing. “Numb. I guess ‘numb’ is the best way to describe how I feel. Does numb count as a feeling? I mean, isn’t it the antithesis of a feeling?”

“It counts,” Gwen affirmed, “but I don’t know how long it will last. I hate to state the obvious, my friend, but there is a lot of pain ahead of you, and once it hits, I suspect you’ll wish you could feel numb again.”

Gwen’s prediction was devastatingly accurate. In the days and weeks that followed, Ali suffered one painful emotion after another—sadness, anger, confusion, disbelief, and despair. Sometimes a single feeling lingered for days, until she knew it intimately. More often, several different facets of pain combined, forming an emotional cyclone that gathered strength and speed until she was mercifully thrown clear for a while. Sometimes, the respite came from activity—physically putting herself in motion as Isaac had so often done. More often, it came in the form of sleep. She was grateful that sleep had always been her mind and body’s natural coping mechanism during times of stress. How awful it would be, she thought, to have insomnia when all you want to do is escape from your own thoughts.

Naps, Ali contended, are wasted on the young. She remembered how she used to hate them as a child. When her sister and brother were both old enough to go to school, and it was just Ali and her mother left at home during the day, Ali insisted that she was “too old” for naps. However, by midafternoon each day, it was obvious that she was not.

Mom allowed her youngest daughter to save face by declaring 1 p.m. to be “story hour.” Every Monday morning, the two of them made a trip to the library and brought home a week’s worth of books. Every afternoon, Ali would choose one of the books and climb onto her mom’s lap, where she would inevitably fall asleep during the story telling.

Ali carried on the tradition with her own daughter, Zoe, and now was so grateful that she had. Oh, what she wouldn’t give for the solace of feeling Zoe curled up in her lap once again—or to curl up in her own mother’s lap today.

Ali realized how fortunate she was to have so many caring friends and family volunteering their help. “If there’s anything you need . . .” was a genuine, if vague, offer she had heard many, many times since the accident. It was the same offer she had often made to countless friends in similar unhappy circumstances. Rarely did anyone take her up on it, even though she had also been sincere. Now she understood why.

Opening the drawer of her bedside table, Ali pulled out her leather-bound journal and pen, and began to write.

13 February 2012

Everyone keeps asking me if I need anything. What I need is for someone to tell me what I need. I can’t focus long enough to figure out what I ought to be doing. I’m sure there are all kinds of things to take care of, but I can’t seem to think of what they are. Isaac used to tease me about the endless lists I make to keep myself organized and feeling in control. Now, I can’t even come up with a list, let alone check things off. Being organized just doesn’t seem important anymore. And being in control . . . well, that was always an illusion, wasn’t it?

Ali had purchased this particular journal more than a year earlier. Until recently, it contained only a smattering of innocuous entries. Now, over half the pages were filled with rants, ramblings, questions, and grievances. More than a few pages were stained by her tears.

Just then, the doorbell rang, bringing her out of her reverie and back to the present. Am I expecting someone? She couldn’t remember. She peeked out through the etched-glass side window to see her mother standing on the front porch. Shaking her head in an attempt to clear the fog that so often enveloped her mind these days, she chastised herself, how could I have forgotten that Mom was coming over?

Ali’s entire body relaxed at the sight of her mother, knowing that the only thing separating her from sheer comfort and affection was a few inches of wood.

  ♦

“Childhood is a short season.” ~ Helen Hayes

Chapter 2

1976-1982

“It’s Lassie! Mommy, Daddy, look! Gramma and Grandpa Donker sent me a Lassie dog for my birthday, just like the one on TV!” Six-year-old Ali was beside herself with joy! Jumping up and down while clutching the stuffed animal to her chest, she declared, “Oh, I love you, Lassie!”

“That’s wonderful, Sweetheart! She’s just beautiful,” said her mother. “Gramma and Grandpa really wanted to be here, Honey, but they just couldn’t make the trip this year. Gramma’s not feeling very well.”

“I wish they were here. I like it when they come to visit. Grandpa always gives us gum even though he’s not ‘sposed to,” eight-year-old Nathan said with a giggle.

“Tattletale!” Chloe admonished.

Turning everyone’s attention back to the birthday girl, her father said, “Looks like you have one last present, Ali Oop. Let’s see what it is.”

Ali held the stuffed animal tightly with one arm while reaching for the unopened gift. She somehow managed to rip the paper off without letting go of her new best friend.

“It’s a coloring book! And it’s full of pictures of horses!”

“That’s from me!” big sister Chloe said with pride. “And I got you some new crayons, too. The big box with sixty-four colors!”

Temporarily releasing her hold on Lassie, Ali greedily leafed through the pages, trying to decide which picture was her favorite.

“The big box? Really? All my own? Oh, thank you, Chloe!” After giving her sister a quick hug around the neck, Ali went right back to the coloring book. “I want to color one right now!”

“Not so fast, Pumpkin Pie,” said her father. “You know the rule. You have to write a thank you note for the gift before you can play with it. Your sister will help you.”

“Okay, but can I use my new crayons to write the thank you note?”

Her parents exchanged an amused look before her mom said, “Sure, Sweetheart. I think we can bend the rule a little bit this time.”

Bent, but never broken, it was a rule that took deep root in Ali, and just one of the many ways in which her parents taught her the importance of saying thank you.

Mount Vernon is an inconspicuous little town sixty miles north of Seattle. The locals will assure you of three points: first, that their city is close, but not too close, to Seattle; second, it’s rural, but not too rural for city lovers; and third, it’s small, but not too small to have all the important amenities.

Anchored by the historic Lincoln Theater on South First Street, downtown Mount Vernon consists mainly of small, locally owned businesses, typically quartered in vintage brick buildings. Its wide, brick boulevards encourage strolling and create a friendly, small-town atmosphere.

Beyond the city’s commercial business district, acres and acres of lush, rich earth are still host to farmlands, berry fields, and horse-boarding barns.

Ali Benevento considered herself fortunate to have grown up on her family’s berry farm in Mount Vernon, alongside her older siblings, Chloe and Nathan. Ali had fond memories of playing among the rows and rows of berries with her brother and sister. The low-lying strawberry plants were perfect for hurdling, while the raspberry bushes provided exceptional cover for hide-and-seek.

When not tending to the strawberry, raspberry, and blueberry bushes, their father, Martin, moonlighted as a tractor mechanic and their mother, Peggy, taught fifth grade at Lincoln Elementary School.

Every June, soon after school let out for the summer, busloads of local teenagers came to the family’s farm to earn money by picking berries. The most handsome fruits were sold to grocery stores, while the less perfect were reserved for making jams and jellies.

Ali loved to hop out of bed in the early morning and watch as the buses rolled in and the twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-old kids piled out. After stowing their lunch bags and picking up fruit carriers, they were each assigned a row to harvest. Martin and Peggy were savvy enough to know that forbidding the young pickers to eat the succulent berries would be a fruitless battle, so instead, they allowed them to eat as many berries as they wanted while they worked. The amount of fruit consumed was about the same either way, but giving permission meant that the field supervisors didn’t need to waste time and energy being watchdogs.

Pickers were issued punch cards to keep track of the number of boxes they filled each day and the number of days they worked. Those who missed no more than two harvesting days during the brief three-to-four-week season were rewarded with an end-of-harvest picnic in addition to receiving a bonus for each box they had filled.

There were always a few kids who got fired for excessive berry-throwing or generally goofing off, but most were hard workers who were grateful for the opportunity to earn some spending money before they were old enough to get “real jobs.”

Ali was jealous of Chloe and Nathan when they got to pick alongside the other kids in the fields, but she learned the meaning of backbreaking work the first year she joined their ranks. It taught her a lesson about the duplicity of envy that she never forgot. As an adult, she equated it with the admonition, “Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”

Along with the profit-producing berry fields, Mr. Benevento nurtured a few grapevines in the family’s backyard. The vines didn’t grow as well as they did in arid Eastern Washington where he was raised—and certainly not as well as they did in Palermo, Italy, where his father and grandfather grew up—but they supplied enough decent grapes to allow him to indulge his passion for winemaking. Unfortunately, his knowledge of wine and winemaking far exceeded his time and resources for producing it.

As she got older, Ali became more interested in the grapes than the berries, in part because she loved watching her father cajole the clusters of delicate fruit into wine. Her fascination was further fueled by her grandfather’s romanticized stories about “the old country.”

Every Sunday, Martin drove to Rest Haven Nursing Home at Fir and 8th Streets, to pick up Grampa “Papa” Gesepi, and bring him to the house for the afternoon. While Peggy was preparing dinner—ably assisted by either Chloe or Nathan—Ali would climb up on Papa’s lap, begging him to tell her again about life on the Benevento family vineyard in Italy. She never tired of hearing stories about her deceased grandmother, and all of her Italian aunts, uncles, and cousins, whom she longed to meet. Her not-so-secret wish was to explore the Italian wine country for herself when she grew up.

Peggy and Martin shared the opinion that Europeans had a much healthier attitude towards the consumption of wine than their American counterparts, so the Benevento children were allowed to drink wine at dinner, when in their parents’ presence. They often made a game of identifying the various varietals, describing the bouquets and guessing the vintages.

Eventually, Ali’s interest in wine and winemaking grew to be as fervent as her father’s. As a teenager, she spent countless hours at his side in their tiny vineyard, asking questions and learning all she could about making fine wine. She imagined owning and operating her own winery some day, perhaps in partnership with her dad.

First, however, she wanted to spread her wings and break away from the familiar, if beloved, surroundings of her hometown. In her family, education held high value, so going to college was a given. After that, she was open to whatever kind of adventure presented itself.

But those things were still far in the future, whereas the Silver Star Stables, just down the road, provided a much more immediate allure.

When Ali was growing up, one of her family’s favorite activities was attending horse shows and competitions at various nearby stables, like Silver Star. Mom, Dad, and Chloe were satisfied just to watch, but Nathan and Ali both caught the fever and begged for riding lessons. Owning one horse, let alone two, was beyond the reach of the family’s budget, but Peggy and Martin decided that the cost of lessons was manageable.

Of all the horses boarded at Silver Star Stables, Tsunami, a chestnut-colored quarter horse-Arabian mix with a distinctive white muzzle, was Ali’s admitted favorite. The diminutive mare weighed nine hundred forty-eight pounds and stood fourteen and a half hands at the withers. She combined the speed and gentleness of her Arab ancestry with the energy and balance of her quarter horse forbears. In Ali’s eyes, she was perfect.

Ali’s infatuation with Tsunami began when she saw her performing in a key pole race at an equine games-day competition. She couldn’t explain why she felt so drawn to “Tsu” as opposed to the others, but there it was. After the games were over, Martin took her to the stables to meet Tsunami and her owner. He was surprised to find Ali suddenly taken shy, grasping his hand tightly, and hiding behind him as they approached the stall and greeted the horse’s owner.

“Hi there, my name is Martin Benevento, and this is my daughter, Ali. We were in the stands today watching you and your horse compete. You were both wonderful.”

The woman turned toward them and smiled. “Nice to meet you both,” she said. “I’m Susan Schuster, and this is Tsunami. We certainly didn’t win any ribbons this time, but we had some fun. She was pretty hot today, which is my fault. I haven’t been able to make the time to ride her much recently.”

“Hot?” Ali asked meekly as she peeked out from behind her father.

“Yes, that’s horse talk for ‘wound up.’ She just had a lot of pent-up energy,” Susan explained.

“How did she get the name Tsunami?” Martin asked.

“Well, that’s my sneaky way of naming her after myself. I introduced myself to you as Susan, but my family always called me Sue. I’m fascinated by tsunami waves as well as horses, so when a friend suggested that name and I realized I could call her Tsu, for short, it seemed like a perfect fit!

Crouching down to address Ali, Susan asked, “Do you ride?”

Gaining courage, Ali stepped out and responded, “I want to, but I don’t know how. My brother, Nathan, is taking lessons now. When he finishes, I get to.”

“I see. Then will you lease a horse to ride?”

Ali looked up at her father imploringly, anxious to hear what he would say. “We’re hoping to find someone who’s willing to do a partial lease until we see how much time the kids actually devote to a horse.”

“Well, you might just have found that person,” Susan told them.

Nolan Shafer loved teaching beginners how to ride horseback—especially children. The young students invariably exhibited a sense of awe, respect, and enthusiasm that reminded him of how fortunate he was to work with the horses and people at Silver Star Stables.

Martin and Peggy did their research before choosing a riding school and instructor for Nathan and Ali. They were happy to discover that Silver Star Stables had a superior reputation among local horse owners. The barns were clean and well maintained with a dry, organized tack room; the horses were calm, healthy, and well shod. All the instructors were amiable, self-confident, experienced professionals. Nathan Benevento was Nolan’s 161st student and Ali would become his 169th, so Martin and Peggy felt confident that their children were in good hands.

The night before her first lesson, Ali was so excited she couldn’t sleep. She had been dreaming of this day ever since she got the horse-themed coloring book from Chloe on her sixth birthday. After she saw the movie classic National Velvet, and later, The Black Stallion, her affection for all things equine was undeniable and insatiable.

“I don’t get to learn on Tsunami?” Ali was crestfallen.

“I’m afraid not, Ali. Tsunami is a bit too high-spirited for a beginner,” Nolan explained. “It’s important to train on a horse that is alert, yet calm and not overly sensitive. All horses pick up on the emotions of their riders, but some are more forgiving than others. As a beginner, you’ll probably feel nervous and unsure at first—everyone does. You need to practice on a horse that’s used to beginners so you have time to learn the basics without being afraid of your mount.”

“But I love Tsunami. I really want to ride her.” Ali’s pleading bordered on whining.

“Did you hear the quality of your voice just now, Ali?” Nolan asked. “One of the first things you have to learn about being around horses is to always speak in a calm, confident, quiet tone of voice. Does whining get you what you want from your parents?”

“Sometimes . . . but not usually,” Ali admitted reluctantly. “They don’t like it when I whine.”

“Neither does your horse,” said Nolan.

“I understand that you’re anxious to ride Tsunami, but do you really want to subject her to your natural nervousness? Wouldn’t you rather start off your riding relationship with her as a confident, self-possessed horsewoman? After all, horses have long memories, Ali, and just like with people, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.”

Ali’s only response was to frown and look down at the ground. She could tell she wasn’t going to win this argument.

“How about if you let me introduce you to Merry? She’s a wonderful horse, too. I’m sure you’ll like her. You’ll get to ride Tsunami soon enough.”

Ali was unconvinced until she actually saw Merry. She was a beautiful palomino, impeccably groomed and exuding serenity. And Ali could have sworn—though she knew it was silly—that Merry actually smiled at her when they met! She was sure then that learning to ride was going to be every bit as wonderful as she had imagined.

When the grapes and the horses weren’t luring Ali outside, the family piano made her a willing captive indoors. Playing the piano filled her with a joy so deep and consuming that her family often teased her about preferring it to them. Happily, she was quite talented, so even her endless hours of practice created a pleasant soundtrack for her family’s daily life.

From the time Ali was tall enough to reach the keyboard and plink her first tentative notes, piano music became like the lure of a siren to her. In fact, one of her earliest memories was of sitting on the piano stool, trying in vain to make her feet reach the pedals.

Hunting and pecking, she eventually found the keys that produced the notes of the tunes she heard in her head. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” played with one hand, eventually gave way to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which lead to “Happy Birthday,” played with both hands. By the time she was nine, she had mastered a dozen different Christmas carols, all played by ear.

At some point in her childhood—she couldn’t remember exactly when—Ali began creating her own elementary tunes. Or, as she put it, recording songs in her head. Not knowing how to read or write music, she committed some of her compositions to memory for her own pleasure, but she never shared them with anyone.

Family finances—already stretched thin by the cost of riding lessons—were such that Ali didn’t start taking piano lessons until she was twelve years old. Talented as she was, the lack of formal training earlier in life limited her horizons as a performer. Fortunately, that was never her ambition. Nor did it diminish the euphoria she experienced when she played.

Because she was so young when she became infatuated with the family piano, it was years before she realized that it was a bit of an antique; or more precisely, a relic. The battered, cherrywood upright had endured three generations of grimy fingers, damp environs, and infrequent tuning. Even so, Ali managed to coax some beautiful music from its overtaxed strings.

Sunday afternoons at the Benevento house evoked scenes reminiscent of those in Norman Rockwell paintings, as the family gathered around the piano and sang songs that spanned decades and genres.

While Ali’s fingers beguiled sweet melodies from the decrepit piano, the notes produced by her vocal chords were not equally as pleasant. Her older sister, Chloe, on the other hand, sang as divinely as Ali played. When the two girls accompanied one another, everyone within earshot felt compelled to stop whatever they were doing and listen. Their shared love of music created an unbreakable bond between the sisters that only grew stronger as they grew older.

 ♦

“Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Chapter 3

November 23, 1978

Peggy Benevento loved Thanksgiving, and her holiday table reflected that love. It was always splendid to behold.

First, there was the table itself. It was not an antique yet, but it was built in a time when furniture was intended to be handed down from one generation to the next. Made of heavy dark oak, it weighed nearly two hundred pounds. The ornately carved legs showed that it was made by craftsmen who regarded their work as an art form. Its top measured five feet by forty-four inches, even before Thanksgiving morning, when the insertion of the five leaves expanded its breadth considerably.

Once adorned with Peggy’s white lace tablecloth, freshly polished, sterling silver utensils, cloth napkins, and china dishware, the transformation from family dinner table to royal banquet table was complete.

Poised in the center of the table was the truest symbol of Thanksgiving, the cornucopia. The decorative horn of plenty spilled its contents of fruits, vegetables, and nuts from one end of the table to the other as a reminder of God’s graciousness and generosity.

Although it entailed considerable work, Peggy loved all the holiday preparation—especially the last minute tasks required on Thanksgiving morning. Looking down the length of her holiday table, she felt a thrill of anticipation knowing that that very evening, three generations of Beneventos would gather around it for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Not satisfied to limit the celebration to immediate family, every year the Beneventos hosted an open house on Thanksgiving Day. Friends and neighbors were invited to drop by throughout the afternoon to visit, greet one another, and toast their good fortune with a glass of Martin’s homemade wine.

The open house became a quintessential community event as definitive of the holiday as Thanksgiving dinner itself. In fact, while the Benevento children were growing up, they assumed that everyone celebrated Thanksgiving in this same fashion. When they got older, they were disappointed to discover that this was not the case, and each of them eventually made the holiday open house a tradition in their own home.

“Mom, why do you like Thanksgiving so much?” eight-year-old Ali asked as she helped her mother arrange the cornucopia.

“Oh, there are so many reasons, Sweetheart. For one thing, I love the weather this time of year, especially the days when the air is cool and crisp. I like pulling out my heavy sweaters and snuggling up under the down comforters. I love sitting in front of the fireplace, watching the flickering flames. I enjoy the falling leaves and the gusty winds that blow them every which way. Life seems to slow down just a bit in the autumn; it’s like we get a breather between the non-stop activity of the summer and all the Christmas preparations ahead in December.”

“But all the plants die this time of year,” said Ali.

“Yes, that’s true, their leaves and blossoms die off, but most of them will come back in the spring. It’s more like they are going to sleep—like when you used to take your afternoon nap.”

“Why else do you like Thanksgiving?”

Peggy thought for a moment. “I like Thanksgiving because it’s a ‘reminder’ holiday. It reminds us to be thankful for what we have. It reminds us to appreciate the people we love. And it reminds us of our connection to the earth. I like that it’s a quiet, peaceful holiday. It isn’t about presents or candy or games.”

Ali shrugged. “I like some parts of it—like eating breakfast in our pajamas and watching the parade on TV—but I think Thanksgiving’s kinda boring after all the grown-ups get here.”

“I know. I thought it was boring, too, when I was young. It’s a holiday that you will appreciate more as you get older, though.”

“Why?”

“Well, because when you get older, you realize that just being around people you love and care about makes you feel good, even if it’s not always exciting. And that’s what Thanksgiving is all about—gathering with people you love and stopping to recognize your blessings.

“It’s so easy to take things and people for granted, Ali. Appreciating what we’ve been given is very important. I love the fact that Thanksgiving is a whole day dedicated to just that . . . giving thanks.”

Satisfied that the horn of plenty in the center of their table was fulfilling its role as a symbol of abundance, Peggy turned her full attention to her youngest daughter. Moving over to the couch, they sat and snuggled close together.

“Ali, I’m going to tell you a very important secret and I want you to promise me that you will always, always remember it, because it’s the key to happiness.”

“You’re going to give me a key? I love keys!” Ali said excitedly. “Can I wear it on a chain around my neck like some of the kids at school do?”

“No, this isn’t the kind of key you hold in your hand. It’s the kind of key you keep in your head and your heart.”

“Huh?”

“You know how sometimes a word can have more than one meaning? Well, there’s more than one kind of key. In this case, the word ‘key’ means ‘the way to find something.’ When I say I’m going to give you the key to happiness, I mean that I’m going to tell you how to find happiness. Do you understand?”

“I think so.”

“Ali, here’s what I want you to remember: The key to happiness is gratitude.”

“What’s gratitude?”

“Gratitude means being thankful. Like when we say grace before dinner, we tell God that we are thankful for our food.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very good secret,” Ali said with a note of disappointment.

“It’s the kind of secret that becomes more important when you are older, but I want you to learn it now so you can always be happy.

“You know how you get sad sometimes? Like when your brother takes a toy away from you? Or when your dad and I tell you that you can’t have something you really want? Well, if you stop thinking about what you don’t have and start thinking about what you do have, you’ll stop being sad.”

“I will?”

“Uh-huh. Every time. Maybe not right away, but it’s the fastest way to feel better. So remember, the more gratitude you feel for all your blessings, the happier you will be.

“And Ali, this is a secret that it’s alright to share.”

Chloe, Nathan, and Ali awoke early Thanksgiving morning to the enticing aroma of fresh baked cinnamon rolls. It was just one of the traditions they could always count on.

The day before, they had watched their mother prepare the dough. Twice during the course of the day, they saw the dough rise, as if it were trying to escape the confines of the huge ceramic mixing bowl that was reserved just for making bread. Each time it rose above the top of the bowl, their mother would appear and punch it down again. The third time it rose, the real fun began!

First, Peggy overturned the bowl and dropped the big fluffy ball onto the counter. With a heavy rolling pin she shaped the dough into a rectangle, then brushed on melted butter, and sprinkled it with sugar, followed by cinnamon and raisins. (Ali would have preferred the rolls to be raisin-free, but she was outvoted.)

Next, Peggy enveloped those luscious ingredients inside by rolling the adorned dough into a log. Finally, she coaxed the roll into a circular shape with end meeting end, and deftly sliced through the dough—not quite all the way—at three-inch intervals, causing the dough to separate just enough to suggest individual rolls. Then she covered her tantalizing masterpiece with a damp towel and placed it in the fridge.

In the morning, when the sweet bread came out of the oven, Peggy topped each roll with icing and maraschino cherries alternated with walnut halves. This special preparation, their mother told them, transformed ordinary cinnamon rolls into a Swedish Tea Ring. The kids didn’t care whether it was Swedish, Italian, or American. The tea ring was a thing of beauty and a keenly anticipated treat.

“Donald Duck is my favorite.”

“Not me. I love Snoopy.”

“No way. Superman is the best!”

“What do you think, Dad? Which balloon do you think is the best?” asked Nathan, hoping to draw support for Superman.

“I really like the marching bands more than the balloons,” Martin said.

Still hoping for a tiebreaker, all eyes turned to their mother.

“Mom, don’t you like Donald Duck the best?” asked Ali.

“The balloons are all wonderful, but the floats are my favorite part of the parade,” Peggy said diplomatically.

“I like those, too!” said Ali. “I want to ride on one someday. I wish they still used horses to pull the floats. Tsunami could pull the float and I could ride on it. That would be so cool!”

“Could we go to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for real next year? Wouldn’t that be awesome?” Nathan suggested, looking to Ali and Chloe for support.

Peggy and Martin looked at one another and smiled, but didn’t answer right away. Inwardly, they were both pleased that their three half-grown kids would even consider taking a cross-country trip together. They knew it wouldn’t be long before twelve-year-old Chloe and ten-year-old Nathan would chafe at the idea of even being in a room together with their family, let alone a car or a plane. At eight years of age, they still had some cuddle time left with Ali, but that would be gone before they knew it.

“Would you really want to be away from home on Thanksgiving?” Peggy asked. “Your grandparents wouldn’t be with us, and we couldn’t host our Thanksgiving open house.”

“Not to mention we’d miss out on your mom’s spectacular Thanksgiving dinner!” added Martin.

The kids protested a bit, insisting it would be okay to break tradition just one year for the sake of a trip to New York, then they settled back down in their warm, comfortable family room to watch the rest of the parade on TV.

Just as the final float with Santa Claus came on the screen, the lights in the house flickered and the power went out.

There they sat, all five Beneventos still in their pajamas on Thanksgiving morning with no electricity. No lights, no furnace, no TV . . . and no oven.

The power outage didn’t come as a complete surprise. The wind and rain had been steadily gaining intensity since the night before and the weather forecasters had predicted a major storm. Even so, no one really expected the weather to interfere with the holiday festivities. Now they would have to reexamine their clearly false assumptions and formulate a “Plan B.”

Since it was only 10 a.m., the lack of lights wasn’t really a problem. The temperature outside was in the low forties, so they knew they wouldn’t freeze to death without heat. An extra layer or two of clothing would keep everyone warm enough—layers and two wood-burning fireplaces.

They were all still full from their breakfast of cinnamon rolls, bacon and eggs, so the big question was what to do about dinner? Peggy, always thinking ahead, had wisely held off putting the turkey in the oven, just in case they lost power. She knew that if she put it back in the freezer now, it would stay plenty cold enough to avoid spoiling—but Thanksgiving dinner with no turkey or ham?

And what about their annual open house? Would their friends and neighbors brave the storm to come and visit? Just as Peggy wondered about this out loud, the first knock came at the front door. Five minutes later, another knock, and a few minutes after that, a third knock. By noon, the Benevento living room was overflowing with family, friends, and neighbors. Somehow, the foul weather seemed to draw people in rather than keep them away. Not only did they come, but they brought food to share, games to play, and musical instruments to provide entertainment.

Before long, the dining room table was overflowing with a feast that mimicked the cornucopia and put the usual Thanksgiving dinner to shame.

The storm continued, unabated, through the early evening hours, giving the guests reason to linger much longer than usual. The power remained out all over the county, so neighbors who would have gone home to a cold house were especially grateful to stay in the warmth and comfort of the Benevento’s home.

As the sun went down and the house grew darker, Peggy and Martin lit the candles they had strategically placed throughout the house earlier and stoked the fires in both fireplaces. Then they gave Nathan, Chloe, and Ali the task of making sure all their guests had glasses filled with age-appropriate beverages for toasting.

Everyone looked to Martin as he raised his glass. “Friends,” he began, “we feel so blessed to have you all here with us today. It’s been an unusual holiday to say the least. The storm forced us to forego some traditions, but there’s one we refuse to abandon, and that’s saying what we are thankful for.”

“Before we start,” Peggy interjected, “I’d like to add a new twist to that tradition. As many of you know, my mother passed away this year. In the course of my grieving, I realized that I was sad not only because I had lost someone I loved, but also because I had lost someone who loved me.

“This is the first Thanksgiving I have spent without my mother in many, many years. Although she can no longer be here in body, I want her to be here in spirit, so here’s the twist I propose. From this year forward, let’s not only name something we are grateful for, but also someone we wish could be with us. Maybe it’s someone who has died, or maybe it’s someone who just can’t be here in person for one reason or another. In other words, let’s call to mind the special people who love, and have loved us and include them in our celebration by saying their names out loud. I’ll start.” Peggy raised her glass and said, “Happy Thanksgiving, Grammy Marge!”

The room fell silent for a minute as each person privately reflected on who and what they were grateful for. One by one, each guest spoke up and soon the air was perfumed with the names of loved ones, past and present; people too special to be forgotten.

After the last guest reverently uttered their loved one’s name, the soothing sound of a strumming guitar emerged from the back of the room. Everyone turned to see who was playing. Martin recognized the guitarist as, Evie, the woman who had recently moved into the old Druffle place a mile or so down the road, and thought it wonderful that she would come to the open house her very first year in the neighborhood.

Evie simply said, “I call this “Thanksgiving Song.”” Then she began singing softly:

 When I’m living in the city and the fast life gets me down,

I’ll think of this old table and the times we sat around.

Of the days of easy living and the music that we made

Where the cedar grows and the rooster crows and evenings are homemade.

In this cabin near the river where we laughed and where we grew

Trading long forgotten stories of people we once new.

Where we came to know each other learned to call each other friend

Every visit is a treasure and the pleasure never ends. 

Some snowy evening in the winter when you’re reading round the lamp

When the garden’s under cover and the forest trails too damp.

When you’ve tired yourselves with talking and you’ve nothing much to do

Sing a song and think about me, I’ll be singing one for you.

In this cabin near the river where we laughed and where we grew

Trading long forgotten stories of people we once new.

Where we came to know each other, learned to call each other friend.

Every visit is a treasure and the pleasure never ends.

Every visit is a treasure and the pleasure never ends.

Whether because of the storm or in spite of it, that Thanksgiving turned out to be the most memorable open house the Beneventos ever hosted. For years to come, neighbors would say to one another with a nostalgic tone of voice, “Remember the Thanksgiving Day storm in ‘78? That was a great Thanksgiving.”

 ♦

“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.” ~ E.E. Cummings

Chapter 4

1967-1990

“No! Not again!” Karl groaned and shook his head. “I guess your old man will never learn not to leave you uncovered between diapers. You’ve got great aim, kid, I’ll give you that.”

Karl wasn’t new to the task of diapering a baby; he had changed his share with their daughter, Jackie, who was now four years old. Truth be told, he enjoyed being a hands-on father, especially when his children were this young—a time when they grew and changed so rapidly. Still, his baby boy seemed to require much more attention than Jackie had at that age. Whereas she was observant and quiet, Isaac was physical and chatty.

Just as Karl reached for a fresh diaper from the pile to his right, his six-month-old son chose that moment to roll over for the first time . . . right over the edge of the changing table. It was some superhuman combination of instinct, intuition, and peripheral vision that made Karl turn back just in time to catch Isaac, mere inches from the floor.

Karl’s heart was racing as he clutched his son, forbidding his imagination to fill in the blanks of the alternative outcome just averted. He reluctantly loosened his grasp when he realized that baby Isaac was laughing with delight! Far from being frightened, Isaac reacted as if he had just discovered he could fly!

That was the moment that Karl first knew he and Elizabeth would have their hands full with this little guy; Isaac’s initial death-defying barrel roll and his ensuing glee were just the first indication that he would grow up to be an adrenaline junky. Indeed, throughout his life, the faster and more dangerous the sport, the more Isaac loved it.

His addiction truly kicked in on his ninth birthday, when his parents gave him the skateboard he’d begged for. In no time at all, Isaac mastered classic boarding maneuvers such as the Caballerial, the FS 540, the Fakie, the Varial Kickflip and a half dozen other tricks, usually performed at top speed. He told his friends that he was humoring his parents by wearing pads and a helmet, but there was more than one occasion when safety gear protected him from serious injury, even if he didn’t know it. Like most kids his age, Isaac thought himself to be indestructible and had very little fear of physical risk, but he was careful anyway because he knew that broken bones would prevent him from doing the things he loved to do.

Skateboarding satisfied Isaac’s desire for excitement during his preteen years, growing up in tiny Xenia, Ohio. Once he turned fifteen, however, he fixed his sights on cars and international racetracks. His bedroom walls were covered with posters of his racing idols: Mario Andretti, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Richard Petty, and Johnny Rutherford. His shelves were crowded with model cars that he built with his father. Formula 1, Grand Prix, Sprint, Indycar, and NASCAR—he loved them all.

For his seventeenth birthday, his parents took him to the Indianapolis 500, a two-hour drive from their home in Xenia. After watching the first race he vowed to himself that he would one day have his own racecar. He wasn’t sure he had what it took to compete in events like the 500, but he was determined to find out. Knowing that this wasn’t a cheap ambition, he was glad he had made the effort to earn good grades in high school because he’d need a college degree that would help launch him into a well-paying career.

When it came time to choose a college, Isaac looked for one that combined a reputable academic program with a location conducive to extra-curricular sports. He decided on a degree in Business Administration at the University of Colorado, in Denver. Although Denver wasn’t a hotbed for auto-racing, the Rocky Mountains provided an excellent playground for skiing, snowboarding, and mountain climbing—all of which fed his never ending quest for excitement. He believed in always having a “Plan B” and reasoned that earning a general business degree would effectively prepare him for a variety of career options.

Now twenty-two, freshly graduated from CU and recovering from a recently broken heart, Isaac saw no reason to limit his job search to Colorado. Although moving back to Ohio would have made more sense for pursuing an auto-racing career, he looked to the Pacific Northwest instead. His sister, Jackie, was working for Microsoft as a software developer at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington. He and Jackie had always been close, so that provided a strong pull. Plus, his years in Colorado had fostered in him a love for all things mountainous, and Washington state boasted not one, but two mountain ranges—the Cascades and the Olympics—to feed his passion.

Though he hated to admit it, his youthful desire to become a professional racecar driver, was beginning to wane. He still loved the cars and the speed, but the nomadic lifestyle was less attractive to him now. Even though his last relationship had ended badly, it taught him that he wanted to eventually get married and have a family. He realized that family life and auto-racing weren’t totally incompatible, but he knew from reading about the big-time pros that the two weren’t often successfully combined. Reluctantly, he decided to let racing take a backseat to his ambitions for his personal life, and he considered other professions.

Even so, Isaac hoped to somehow stay on the periphery of the sport. He was thankful that Jackie, years earlier, had suggested he look for a job in an auto parts store. At first he had balked, finding the idea of such menial work offensive to his teenage self-esteem, but when he expressed that point of view to his father, Karl gave him a dressing down. “Who are you to think you’re too good to start at the bottom? If you really want to own an auto parts store some day,” he told his son, “you’d better learn the business from the ground up.” Isaac spent the last two summers of his high school years stocking shelves and waiting on customers at Dayton Xenia Auto Parts.

Now, together with his college degree, he was ready to cash in on that experience. Foregoing the usual help-wanted-ads method of job hunting, he paid a professional writer to help him create a killer resume and cover letter, then proceeded to hand deliver it to every auto parts store in the metropolitan Seattle area.

Many of the store managers Isaac spoke to told him he was overqualified for the clerking positions they had open. They felt sure he would be bored and move on within a few months time. Others—recognizing that Isaac was management material and secretly afraid he might take their jobs—turned him away with similar excuses.

After twenty-two rejections, Isaac walked nonetheless confidently into the twenty-third store on his list, Sterns’ Auto Parts, in south Seattle’s industrial Georgetown neighborhood, and struck gold.

At sixty-three years of age, Austin Sterns was looking for someone to take over the business he had started out of his garage forty years earlier. Although he and his partner, Robert, regarded Sterns’ Auto Parts as a family business, they had no children of their own, so there was no heir apparent. They had put the business up for sale two years earlier, but the only bids came from big corporations. Since making a huge profit was not their main objective, they turned down the offers and decided to look for a buyer who would love the business and the Georgetown neighborhood as much as they did.

They had considered their current employees as potential buyers, and even contacted some former employees, but no one seemed like a good fit. Still a few years from retirement, they decided to bide their time. When Isaac walked in and introduced himself, both Austin and Robert recognized his potential right away.

When Isaac drove up to Sterns’ Auto Parts, he noticed the reader board out front, which read: WE INSTALL WIPER BLADES. A simple, and effective way, he thought, to get across the message that customers should expect service “above and beyond.”

Isaac climbed out of his copper-colored 1976 Pontiac Firebird—his way of paying homage to Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files—and stood for a minute, looking at the store and the surrounding buildings. When he walked in the front door of Sterns, he felt like he’d come home. It was just the kind of place he was looking for—small, privately owned, and well stocked. He took a breath. Six other privately owned places and sixteen corporate stores had already turned him down. I only need one person to say “yes,” he reminded himself.

“Hi, is there a manager available that I could talk to?” Isaac asked the young man behind the counter.

“Yeah, one of the owners is in the back. I’ll get him for you.”

Now, taking a closer look around, Isaac confirmed to himself that the store was clean, well organized, and carried quality merchandise. The prices seemed reasonable as well. The owner obviously understood the importance of creating a welcoming environment and providing value.

A minute later, Austin came striding out from the back, extending his hand to Isaac.

“Hi, I’m Austin Sterns. I’m told you asked to speak to a manager. What can I do for you?”

“Mr. Sterns, you have a very impressive store here and I’d like to work for you in any capacity that will benefit your business. When can I start?”

Once he found a place to live and got settled into his new job, Isaac started looking for another outlet for his daredevil instincts. He found it in skydiving.

Skydive Snohomish was a small family-owned business that catered to first-time skydivers. Headquartered at Harvey Field, about twenty miles north of Seattle, it was also a home base for experienced jumpers.

While driving along Highway 9 on his way to explore the area around Lake Stevens, Isaac spotted a billboard promoting Skydive Snohomish. It triggered a Pavlovian response in him. He immediately abandoned his plans for the rest of the day, followed the directions to the airfield, and signed up for the next available class.

As he was filling out the necessary and exhaustive legal liability paperwork, Isaac looked up and discovered a second reason to appreciate skydiving. She was blond, five foot six, slender, and answered to the name of Valerie. Turning on his considerable charm, he successfully drew her into a conversation, and quickly discovered that her sense of adventure came close to matching his own—which made her seem even more attractive.

“We offer two types of jumps for first-timers,” explained the guy behind the counter. “There’s the tandem jump, where you’re literally strapped to your instructor when you jump out of the plane. Then there’s the static line jump, where we attach the ripcord on your parachute to a clip inside the plane. The ripcord is pulled when you jump, deploying the parachute five seconds after you exit the plane.”

“Is there an advantage to one type of jump over the other?” Valerie asked.

“Well, the tandem style is sort of a ‘training wheels’ approach,” the clerk explained. “It’s less dangerous because you have an experienced skydiver controlling your flight, but you get to experience free fall and you only need thirty minutes of instruction. Of course, some people don’t like the idea of being strapped to an instructor they barely know.

“If you go the static line route, you get to jump solo. It’s obviously more dangerous, so it requires several hours of training. Most first-timers choose the tandem style.”

Isaac and Valerie, of course, chose the static line option.

In addition to Valerie, there were six others in the first-jump class with Isaac: an eighteen-year-old girl whose grandfather paid her way as a birthday present; a forty-seven-year-old pharmacist who was looking for a way to add some excitement to his life; a sixty-three-year-old man who had wanted to skydive ever since watching the TV series Ripcord as a kid; a fifty-four-year-old widow whose deceased husband had forbidden her to even think about trying it while he was alive; a twenty-four-year-old female taxi driver from New York who was in town on vacation; and a thirty-six-year-old construction worker who couldn’t back down on a dare from his poker buddies.

Their instructor, Kevin, had made over eight hundred jumps in the three years since he took up the sport. “It changed my life,” he told them. Without expounding on this simple statement, he paused for a moment, then launched right into the course content.

“Skydiving is a dangerous sport. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t,” Kevin said. “That’s one reason we have you read and sign the liability waiver before you even take the class, and it’s why I’ll have you initial this training checklist as we go along. We want you to be fully informed about the risks and fully trained about how to minimize those risks so you can appreciate the whole experience.”

The next instruction Kevin gave them appealed directly to Isaac’s “Plan B” mentality.

“The most important safety procedure you need to know is how to deploy your reserve chute if your main chute doesn’t work properly, so I’m going to show you that now and we’ll practice it practice it over and over throughout the class. We want this procedure to become second nature to you.”

Kevin went on to show them a demonstration pack, giving special attention to the emergency handle.

“If you get in a jam—and we’ll talk later about how to know when you’re in a jam—here’s what you need to do: Look. Reach. Pull. Clear. Arch.” After thoroughly demonstrating each step, he repeated them again. “Look. Reach. Pull. Clear. Arch. I want you to practice saying the steps out loud and making the motions because it will help you remember in the event of an emergency. Everybody do it with me. Ready?”

For the next four hours, the group learned about rules and regulations, skydiving equipment, the aircraft, exiting the plane, steering the parachute, landing, and post-jump procedures. Kevin showed them how a parachute is packed and what happens when it deploys. Then he described the sights, sounds, and sensations they could expect to experience during their jump.

“I know I’ve given you tons of information this morning,” he said. “It’s a lot to take in. I always say it’s a little like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose. I don’t want you to worry about not being able to remember everything I tell you. I repeat the really important stuff several times and we’re going to spend the second two hours of the class going over the emergency procedures. I don’t want to scare you, but I want you to be completely prepared in case something goes wrong. If you know how to identify a potential problem and know what to do about it, you can relax and enjoy the ride. Sound good? Okay, let’s take a short break. I’ll see you back here in fifteen minutes.”

During the break, Isaac approached Kevin privately. “Hey, Kevin, great class so far. I wanted to ask you, what did you mean when you said that skydiving changed your life?”

“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Kevin replied. “I think most skydivers feel that way, but it’s such a personal experience. If you ask five different jumpers why they love the sport, you’re likely to get five different answers, but you’ll probably hear commonalities like ‘excitement, adventure, challenge, pushing limits and adrenaline rush.’ When I jump, it’s like time stops. I get to the airfield, get out of my car and leave all my cares behind. I just concentrate on the jump. Afterwards, when I get back on the ground, my worries seem so much less significant. When I first experienced it, that new perspective made a really big and positive change in my outlook on life.

“Then there’s the whole social aspect of the sport. The people you jump with regularly become like a second family. I think it’s because skydiving is such a great equalizer. It puts everyone on the same plane—I know, bad pun. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. When you get up there, you’re just the same as everyone else. And when you share your passion for the sport with other skydivers, you come to care about each other. I get together socially with other jumpers at least twice a month. We have barbeques, potlucks, wine parties . . . any excuse to get together.”

“That surprises me,” said Isaac. “When I look at the people in this class and how diverse our backgrounds and experiences are, it’s hard to imagine we could all become good friends.”

“I know, but it happens all the time,” Kevin assured him. “Like I said, skydiving is a great equalizer.”

Isaac would never forget his first jump. His excitement and anticipation grew throughout the training. The more he learned, the more fascinated he became. He couldn’t wait to get up in the air.

The Cessna 182 carried just three passengers at a time, plus the instructor and pilot. Isaac was slated to go up with the second group. Everyone had suited up together, so he sat anxiously awaiting his turn as he watched the plane take off with the first group.

Trevor, the pharmacist, was the first to jump. As far as Isaac could tell, it went off without a hitch. His chute deployed five seconds after he exited the plane and he looked to be in full control as he banked left, then right, and soared through a clear sky for several minutes before landing.

Cynthia, the taxi driver, was next. She had been full of questions during the class and seemed quite nervous about the whole thing. Isaac wondered if she would actually jump, but jump she did, and in great style.

The third student to jump was Stan, the sixty-three-year-old Ripcord fan. As Isaac watched Stan exit the plane, he recalled the conversation they had earlier in the day during one of the breaks. Stan confessed to Isaac the reason he had waited so long to fulfill this dream.

Thirty years earlier, at an airfield in California, Stan had trained for his first jump, just like today. By luck of the draw, he was to be in the second group to go up that day, so he and the others watched as the first in line in the first group positioned herself to exit the plane. They all counted aloud in unison as she jumped: One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. Three-one-thousand. Four-one-thousand. Five-one-thousand . . . then watched the parachute deploy right on cue. She soared for several minutes and landed uneventfully on the ground, not far from her target.

Then, the second student got in position to jump. He stepped out and grabbed the strut just as they had all been trained to do. When he let go, the static line deployed the chute as expected, but the wind caught him in such a way that he did a back loop through the lines of the chute, causing it to malfunction. Instead of seeing the chute unfurl, the crowd on the ground saw streamers—the cords and the uninflated fabric of the canopy— flapping uselessly above the jumper. In his head, Stan was screaming, “CUT AWAY YOUR CHUTE! USE THE RESERVE! NOW!” Instead, the jumper pulled the emergency handle on the reserve chute without first ejecting the main chute. The reserve got tangled up with the streamers, which prevented it from inflating, too. He was out of time and out of options. He died on impact.

“I couldn’t believe what I had seen,” Stan said. “I was too shaken to consider jumping after that. Two of the other students in the second jump group backed out that day, too. One woman went up on the next flight a few hours later—after the coroner came and cleared the field—and made her jump.

“I should have gotten right back up on the horse. If I had, I probably would have been enjoying the sport all these years instead of wishing I had.”

“What finally got you to come back and try again?” asked Isaac.

“I was reading a magazine article recently that cited statistics about accidental deaths. Did you know that the top five causes of accidental death in this country are auto accidents, poisonings—which includes drug overdoses—falls, fires, and choking? The number of fatalities attributed to skydiving in the United States averages about thirty per year. That’s out of roughly two million jumps per year! According to the article, you’re much more likely to die from a bee sting or a lightning strike than from skydiving! Besides, skydiving equipment has gotten safer every year. Nowadays, in a situation like the one that killed that jumper, there is just one handle to pull; it cuts away the main chute for you, then deploys the reserve.

“Anyway, when I read that article, I realized that I do things every day that put me at much more risk of getting seriously hurt or dying than skydiving does. So, I decided I’d waited long enough to face my fears, and here I am.”

During the pre-flight practice session, Kevin had shown everyone the hand signals he would use to prompt them during the flight. Their helmets and the noise from the plane, he told them, would make it difficult to hear once they were in the air.

Just before they climbed into the plane, Kevin pointed at each one of his students individually and had them demonstrate the emergency sequence again: Look! Reach! Pull! Clear! Arch!

The pilot took the group up to the jumping altitude of three thousand feet and nodded to Kevin.

Lydia, the eighteen-year-old, was the first of their group to jump. She performed flawlessly.

Now, it was Isaac’s turn. As the pilot circled back around toward the jump zone, Isaac watched Kevin for the signal to scoot forward and position himself near the door. The eager anticipation he felt this morning didn’t come close to matching the thrill and excitement he was experiencing now. All his senses seemed to be on fire and he thought to himself: This is how it feels to be really alive!

He waited for the thumbs-up from Kevin to step out and reach for the strut. Slowly, he inched his hands further out until his feet left the platform step and he was suspended from the wing by his hands alone, with his legs flying freely. When Kevin gave the final thumbs up, Isaac fearlessly let go of the wing strut. He felt the expected and satisfying tug as the static line engaged the ripcord. He arched his back and stretched out his arms to get in the proper symmetrical flying position. Then, he looked up in anticipation of the chute opening, and began to count down the five seconds that would change his life. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. Three-one-thousand. Four-one-thousand. Five-one-thousand.

Whump! Isaac felt a sudden upward jerk as his chute caught the air and inflated. He reached up to grab the steering toggles and immediately did the controllability check he learned in class, pulling down on the toggles to flare the parachute, then turning right and left. Yes! Yes! Yes! He was flying!

The first thing he noticed was the quiet. The only sound was the air whooshing by, and even that seemed noiseless. Then he looked out to the horizon and banked to turn a full 360 degrees. Overcome with a sense of awe, he felt as if he were suspended not only in air, but in time. At this moment, only he existed, and he hadn’t a care in the world. This must have been what it was like for God on the first day, looking down on His creation and declaring it good, he thought.

After that first jump, Isaac was hooked. Valerie, on the other hand, was not. She decided that one jump was quite enough, as was her one date with Isaac.

Rather than dwell on the rejection, Isaac concluded that Valerie’s attention span was about as long as the ripcord attached to a static line. No real loss. He had found a truer love in skydiving.

Having deftly sidestepped a potential broken heart, he couldn’t wait to get back in a plane and jump again. Determined to give his total attention to skydiving, he eagerly pulled out his credit card and signed up for the full training program. Three months later, Isaac had twenty-five jumps under his belt, earning his Level A license with the United States Parachute Association.

 ♦♦♦

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